Fly the friendly skies…unless they need your seat. The recent United Airlines debacle which resulted in 69-year-old Dr. David Dao being dragged off a plane to make room for United staff, could have been avoided if Unitedthe company saw its responsibility as “managing minds” instead of “managing hands.”

United, like many other airlines and many companies in other industries, has been stuck in the 20th Century’s industrial economy. This is a command-and-control, hierarchical, risk-avoidance way of working with people. In that world, it’s all about getting the job done, as in making something, fixing something, or moving something, and collecting money for it. In other words, managing hands.

In the current knowledge economy, organizations, especially those that are supposed to be about the comfort and safety of customers, need to focus on what employees think, how they can improve continuously, and what they can contribute to the success of the organization. Companies today need a high level of collaboration, communication, and cooperation. Employees need the freedom to make decisions and do the right thing for customers and for each other. No sense hiring smart employees and then telling them not to think.

United CEO Oscar Munoz’s initial response to the Dr. Dao situation was classic managing-hands. He blamed the customer and then he blamed individual employees. The focus was on following policies and procedures, not doing what’s best for customers. Fortunately for the company, Munoz seems to have come to his senses and now realizes that the culture of the organization is to blame. He has since taken responsibility and acknowledged that the incident was a result of how staff do their work. Washington Post reports:

In an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, Munoz called the incident “a system failure across the board.” He said outdated policies and procedures, which focused more on operations and logistics than customers put all those involved in “impossible situations.”

This acknowledgement by Munoz of a systems failure is a major step in the right direction. An operational mindset had taken over common sense. Employees believe that they must follow the rules even when the rules are not appropriate or ethical in a particular situation. The airline has the small-print right to remove a passenger to make room for staff who must arrive in another destination by a certain time. However, employees must feel free to ask themselves in each situation if that is the right thing to do.

The ten, policy and procedure changes that United said it will enact over the next year should help. One of those changes should go a long way toward United becoming a more customer-focused company. As reported in USA Today, flight attendants and gate agents will be given much greater authority to address customer problems. USA Today quoted the company:

Rolling out later this year, United will launch a new "in the moment" app for our employees to handle customer issues. This will enable flight attendants (by July) and gate agents (later this year) to compensate customers proactively (with mileage, credit for future flights or other forms of compensation) when a disservice occurs.

This is all well and good but the most important change that needs to occur in United is to shift from managing hands to managing minds. This means developing every employee, creating a trusting and empowering work environment, facilitating collaboration, communication, and cooperation among employees and with other stakeholders, encouraging risk-taking and experimenting as a way to improve, and continuously learning for the betterment of individuals, teams, and the whole organization.

[Look for our forthcoming book from ATD titled, Minds at Work: Managing for Success in the Knowledge Economy]

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